"I shouldn't be here because I should be dead" sings Bono on "Lights of Home," the second track on Songs of Experience, the long-delayed sequel to 2014's Songs of Innocence. It's not merely a turn of phrase. Two months after U2 unleashed Songs of Innocence on the world, Bono injured himself in a bicycle accident so severe he suspected he may never play guitar again. He recovered, but his misfortune derailed plans for the band to wrap up Songs of Experience swiftly, so U2 decided to take their time. A version of the record neared completion in 2016, but that year's twin elections of Brexit and Trump spurred U2 to revise the album, as they decided they couldn't release a record that didn't address such cataclysmic political events. Retro-conning the existing Songs of Experience material to suit the political climate wasn't the easiest task and the album often shows its seams, particularly when Bono decides to tackle the crisis head-on: the line "Democracy is flat on its back, Jack" arrives with a thud on "The Blackout," but it's nothing compared to "American Soul," an ode to real America where the singer and the band engage in a battle of hams. "American Soul" also features a line -- and no more -- by Kendrick Lamar, the rapper who is on the vanguard of popular music in 2017 (no less of an authority than David Bowie cited Lamar as an influence on his final album, Blackstar), but Kendrick gets buried in the mix in a fashion that's sadly indicative of the tentative nature of Songs of Experience. Bono may wrestle with big themes in his lyrics but his ambitions are reined in by a production that seems afraid of alienating any constituent. Typical to many modern records, Songs of Experience is the result of too many cooks: Jacknife Lee and Ryan Tedder claim the main production credits, with Andy Barlow, Jolyon Thomas, and old friend Steve Lillywhite responsible for additional production, whatever that may be. With all these hands, it's not much of a surprise that Songs of Experience feels diffuse, its modernist moments -- like Bono embracing pitch-shifted vocals -- counterbalancing feints toward U2's arena rock past. It all feels so familiar, it takes a moment to realize that the echoes of the Edge are muted, that the rhythms are sometimes constrained by tight sequencing, that the glossy surface can sometimes recall Ellie Goulding, or how when the tempo slows, it feels like U2's greatest aspiration is to be as graceful as Coldplay. All this adds up to an album that feels vaguely desperate. Say what you will about the muddled Pop: at least it had an ethos. Here, U2 feel trapped between their history and the pull of the year, and they wind up seeming diminished. For the first time, they seem smaller than life.
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Review by Stephen Thomas Erlewine